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Thursday September 22, 2011

Najib reaching out to Penang Chinese

The Prime Minister wants to keep the conversation going with the Chinese and his visit to Penang this Sunday to raise funds for Chinese schools is yet another signal that he is not giving up on them.

DATUK Seri Najib Tun Razak's knee is mending quite well following surgery more than a month ago. And he may get the chance to put it to the test in Penang this Sunday where he is scheduled to cycle with several hundred Penangites to raise funds in the name of charity.

If everything goes according to plan, the Prime Minister will be pedalling around the Tanjong Tokong area, once a quaint seaside suburb famous for its seafood but which is now more famous for traffic jams.

The event comes under Najib's 1Malaysia programmes and could be one of Najib's most major gestures to the Chinese community. The 1Malaysia Charity Ride for Education 2011, as the event is known, is to help raise funds for some 15 Chinese schools in Penang.

“The Prime Minister is showing that he is for all Malaysians by coming down to join us,” said Datuk Ong Gim Huat, a Penang businessman and chairman of Kwong Wah Yit Poh, which is the organiser of the event.

Kwong Wah Yit Poh is the most widely-read Chinese newspaper in Penang and the northern parts and is quite influential in that sense. Ong's late father Datuk Ong Hoo Kim was a prominent philanthropist famed for his role in raising funds for Chinese education and the son is now following in his father's footsteps.

The paper started the charity ride last year to raise funds for a Chinese primary school in Penang's Perak Lane. As such, Ong is quite gratified to have the paper's baby expanded into something bigger, benefiting some 15 schools and with the Prime Minister lending his clout.

Private Chinese schools are always struggling for funds, be it to meet operating costs or for expansion, and they survive largely on contributions from the Chinese community and student fees.

The organisers are hoping that Najib's backing will help take the fund-raising effort to another level.

But Najib's presence in Penang is bound to be read as more than just raising money for Chinese schools.

Chinese schools are a pillar of the community and, as everyone knows, Najib has been reaching out directly to various interest and community groups.

In December 2009, not long after he took over as Prime Minister, he attended the 90th anniversary dinner of the Chong Hwa Independent High School, a premier private Chinese school in Kuala Lumpur. It was quite a big deal for the school because he was Education Minister when he last visited the school.

It is going to be more than just a bicycle ride this Sunday. His visit will be seen as yet another move to connect with the Chinese and also to raise the profile of his Barisan Nasional coalition in the state.

Najib's statement at the Barisan Hari Raya open house in Permatang Pauh last week was a move in that direction. He told the Penang people that they would not be neglected by the Federal Government and he was also sending out the message that his coalition is not afraid of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

“He is stepping up the pressure on the Pakatan Government. I can see that he also wants to keep the DAP big guns in Penang busy on their own turf so that they won't get ideas and start moving to places like Johor,” said Rita Sim of the Centre for Strategic Engagement.

The Penang Barisan had been like a man wandering in the wilderness in the first couple of years after the political tsunami. But it is beginning to recover its voice and find its footing.

Penang Gerakan chairman Datuk Teng Hock Nan is starting to speak out on local issues and to take on Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.

Teng's queries about the development taking place in Penang and his remarks that Lim is inconsistent, that his public statements fluctuate and changes “from kopi-O to kopi susu” is the sort of role that people in the Barisan want out of their leaders.

The big boy in Penang is the DAP and any attempt to regain ground in Penang will have to involve taking on the DAP. Penang politics is not for faint-hearted politicians.

The conventional wisdom is that the Penang Chinese have made up their minds about the next general election and that the DAP-dominated Government is set to rule another term. But Barisan leaders know the Penang honeymoon with Lim cannot go on indefinitely, no matter how great the infatuation.

“Najib's problem is not him but his party. No one has any gripe about him. They see him as a liberal, someone who is open-minded. To them, he is a safe pair of hands for secular Malaysia. But they think that unlike his predecessor (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad), he is unable to put his foot down with the ring wing elements in his party.

“No other PM has gone as far as he has in terms of ideas and gesture, especially after his Malaysia Day announcements. He is the right man for the kind of Malaysia we want and if this were a presidential race, he would win hands down. But the Umno brand is still not selling,” said social historian Dr Neil Khor.

But Najib is not a defeatist as evident in the by-election campaign in Hulu Selangor where he went into the Chinese villages to campaign even though he knew the mood was hostile and dead against the Barisan. Likewise, he is not giving up on the Chinese in Penang.

In fact, he cannot afford to give up on them because 65% of the registered voters in Penang are Chinese.

Najib wants to keep the conversation going with the Chinese and he will continue to make his presence felt in Penang.

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